While I was baking Christmas cookies in December, I started wondering about the origins of our neon red maraschino cherries. I did a little research and discovered that American maraschino cherries are actually a result of US government intervention in trade.
The Marasca cherry, a type of cultivated Morello cherry from Dalmatia, was used to create the popular Maraschino liqueur, using a method of distillation developed by Venetian Giuseppe Carceniga and later perfected by Francesco Drioli, a Venetian merchant. In 1759, Drioli founded the Fabbrica di Maraschino in Zara, the capital city of Dalmatia, to produce the liqueur on a massive scale. By the end of the 18th century his liqueur, bottled in green Murano glass, was famous worldwide and he held privileges and royal warrants from courts across Europe.
Whole cherries preserved in this liqueur, also popular throughout Europe, were known as maraschino cherries. These preserved cherries were extremely expensive as an export product and when they finally made it to the United States in the late 19th century, they could only be found in expensive fine dining establishments. The introduction of Prohibition in the U.S. in 1920 made true maraschino cherries even more difficult to obtain. Coincidentally, research conducted at Oregon State University by Ernest Wiegand led to the production of preserved cherries without alcohol. Although the USDA had, in 1912, decreed that maraschino cherries were “marasca cherries preserved in maraschino,” following prohibition and under pressure from the anti-alcohol lobby, it changed its definition.
From 1940, maraschino cherries have been officially defined in the U.S. as “cherries which have been dyed red, impregnated with sugar and packed in a sugar syrup flavored with oil of bitter almonds or a similar flavor." I think that's rather sad. Fortunately, “real” maraschino cherries are still available from Luxardo, a firm established in 1821 as a rival to Drioli. These imports are still expensive, but I’ve ordered some and look forward to trying them—although I must confess I quite like the neon red ones I put in my cookies.
While waiting for my cherries to arrive, I did purchase a bottle of Maraschino liqueur, which still comes in a green glass bottle, but is now marketed as Maraschino Luxardo and produced by the firm of that name. To my mind, it falls into the same category as grappa and aquavit, produced in a similar fashion with a similar taste; it's also 32% alcohol by volume--not for the faint of heart. Fortunately, around the neck of the bottle I purchased was a small brochure that contained some cocktail recipes. My favorite is the Aviation, which has it's own Wikipedia page.